Jesus tells this story to his disciples: the ones who have pledged their allegiance to him; the ones who are serious about following his leadership. He has already identified himself to them as the one who is the Son of Humanity. Now they are all on the way to Jerusalem and two days from their last Passover together, and now Jesus tells them what it will be like when he comes in his glory as King.
But what a very strange king! A king who names as “members of his family” the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and prisoner. A king who identifies with these “least of these” so strongly, that what is done to them, or not done to them, is the same as doing or not doing to him. A king who hears the cry “Lord” from both those on his right and those on his left, but who makes it very clear who are the ones who really follow his leadership and the ones who do not.
So how do disciples truly follow Christ the King? How do disciples inherit the Kingdom? There are some things in particular for us to to note this morning in Jesus’ description of what disciples do.
The first thing to note is that to follow Jesus apparently has very little to do with belief. Here there are no concerns for which atonement theory we hold, no care as to whether we come down on the side of free will or the side of predestination, no worry about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Beliefs are important, as a starting point or as a framework. And, we come to a place like this university in part just because we expect to be changed in our beliefs. We want to educate ourselves and to interact with folks from other cultures and other belief systems. We talk about beliefs all the time, and we know just how fleeting and fragile beliefs can be. Even though in his time he was not exposed to an average of 30,000 advertisements a day whose sole purpose is to change our beliefs as often as possible, Jesus also knew how beliefs can change, how we talk about them so easily, how fleeting and fragile they are.
To follow Jesus is not exactly about money either. It is not about writing checks. Now, don’t get me wrong. Checks are great. Keep them coming. As often and for as much as possible. When we give and spread money around we can do a lot of good.
And, if we just write checks, we can be tempted to think that that is enough, that once “the check’s in the mail” we have done our bit, all that is necessary to do.
Instead, part of what it is to follow Jesus is to take direct action. Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit those in prison. We might wonder how best to do these things in a particular circumstance. We might wonder, for instance, whether it would be better to give a person a fish for a day or to teach the person to fish for a lifetime, so to speak. But immediate and long-term approaches both meet people’s needs and both give people hope. The important thing is to do something.
But to follow Jesus as “Lord” is something more even than action. It is to allow transformation of oneself, transformation at a deep heart level, to somehow follow Jesus so closely we do not even know we are doing it. As we do for the members of Jesus’ family as Jesus did, somehow we also recognize at a deep level in them the one who Mother Teresa called “Jesus in all his distressing disguises”. This recognition is born of a mutuality, a relationship, a companioning. It is to look each other in the face and to touch each other’s hands as the drink, food, and clothes are passed, as the welcomed stranger becomes a friend, as the sick and those in prison experience the healing and freedom of loving care.
To follow Jesus is to realize that in these mutual relationships of companionship, our giving becomes receiving and our receiving becomes giving. As we feed others we ourselves are fed. As we give drink to others so our thirst is slaked. As we welcome the stranger we ourselves are welcomed.
This is certainly true for us in our place and time, with a globalized economy, with slavery moving up from third to become the second most lucrative form of human misery on the planet. My School of Theology colleague Alex Froom, in the School’s weekly worship this week, reminded us in his sermon that to walk together with “the least of these” is to remember that those who work to feed us often go hungry, that those who work to clothe us often remain in rags, that those who provide our water often suffer from lack of clean drinking water themselves. To companion the members of Jesus’ family who are marginalized and oppressed is to remember that in the complexities and complicities of our lives all our lives inextricably intertwine. Shane Claiborne is a co-founder of the intentional community The Simple Way. He echoes John Wesley when he notes that is not so much that wealthier Christians don’t care about the least of these; it is that they don’t know them. It is in relationships of mutuality and companionship that we all become members of Jesus’ family and we all inherit the Kingdom.
And who knows how far it will go? Jesus tells us that both the life and the fire are eternal. Debate rages across the Christian spectrum as to whether or not heaven and hell are real or metaphorical places, or whether we create them for ourselves in either or both this world and the next, or whether or not the judgment itself shocks us into one or the other place. All this, thank goodness, is beyond the scope of this sermon; otherwise we’d be here for at least twenty years instead of about twenty minutes. But Jesus’ story does seem to indicate pretty clearly that it is what we do in this life that matters, and that what we do in this life has far-reaching consequences, beyond what we can see or even imagine, not just for those we recognize as Christ, but for ourselves as well.
Before she was called to move, my friend Lucy was a volunteer in an after-school tutoring program. The program was funded by her wealthy white church, of which she was a reasonably wealthy white member. The after-school program took place in an inner-city neighborhood. It was the kind of place where the children informed the program’s volunteers that the drug dealers on this block were “our” drug dealers – they were good; but those drug dealers, on the next block over, you had to watch out for them – they were bad. It was the kind of place that gentrification and most government services actively avoided.
The after-school program was overseen by the street-smart and fierce African American and Latina mothers who had banded together to resist the systemic evil around them: not only had they brokered the deal for the after-school program with the wealthy white church; they had also brokered the deal with the neighborhood gangs to leave the not-at-all-street-smart volunteers alone. So Lucy went two or three times a week to tutor in reading.
One of the children she worked with was Desirée. Desirée was in third grade, and was the daughter of one of the fiercer African American mothers. Desirée herself was shy and quiet, and already seriously below grade level in reading. According to the school, she was a “bad” reader. She was also considered “slow”. But the tutoring taught the way that Desirée learned, and she and Lucy worked well together, so that by the end of the semester Desirée had advanced a whole grade level in reading, and was beginning to blossom.
One day as they worked Lucy noticed that Desirée kept giving her little looks out of the corner of her eye. Sure enough, at the end of the afternoon, just as they had finished packing up for the day, Desirée came and stood in front of Lucy, who was sitting. Desirée very gently touched both of Lucy’s hands with her own, and in a voice of quiet wonder said, “You have two hands, just like me.” Then, touching Lucy with gentleness and care, still in that voice of quiet wonder, Desirée went on: “You have a mouth, just like me. You have a nose, just like me. You have two eyes, just like me. You have two ears, just like me. You have hair, just like me.” Then she was quiet for a minute, looking intently into Lucy’s eyes. And then Desirée smiled a radiant smile, gave Lucy a first, quick hug, said good-bye, and danced off to greet her mother who had come for her.
Meanwhile, Lucy continued to sit. She was shaken to her very core. She realized that neither she nor Desirée had ever before been close enough to a member of the other’s race even to begin to have that kind of tender recognition and exchange of wonder. But because of their companionship in the tutoring program, Lucy and Desirée were able to recognize each other, and their relationship changed their lives. Lucy began to explore and deal with her privilege and inherent racism, to transform them into awareness and appreciation of difference. She began to offer herself, with respect and love, as a companion in the resistance to systemic evil, especially with regard to mothers and children. And the last Lucy heard from Desirée, Desirée was a year ahead of her grade level in reading and moving ahead of that. Her mother reported that Desirée was now the one to keep up with in her school and social life.
The question is not, “Where will we spend eternity?” The question is, “Where will we spend the next 24 hours?” Will it be in a place that we construct out of acts of recognition, companionship, and mutuality as we follow Jesus? Or will it be in a place we construct out of denial, in which we call him “Lord” but do not do what he did, do not companion the members of his family? The choice, the eternal choice, is ours.
If we make the choice for recognition and mutuality, it does not have to be a burden. Next week we begin to wait for and celebrate the fact that Christ the King began with us as a baby. This Sunday that same Christ the King will not mind if we begin with baby steps and continue to grow. We do not have to go it alone: we join with those who are already are members of Jesus’s family and those who join with us in that joining of them. We do not even have to deny our deepest selves. As Howard Thurman encourages us, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” To construct a place of recognition and mutuality needs every gift and fruit of the Spirit given to us, as well as folks from every discipline this university can offer and then some. It needs and invites every single one of us.
What would the next 24 hours look like, what would this world look like, if we acted like Jesus, if we acted out of our own come alive selves?
They asked him: When did we see you, Lord, and when did we care for you?
And the answer came: When you recognized all the members of my family as Me … and as you.
~The Reverend Victoria Hart Gaskell, OSL
Chapel Associate for Methodist Ministry